Home is where the heartache is

By James Sanford

"August: Osage County" electrifies with caustic comedy and outstanding performances


The temperatures are high and the tempers are starting to rise as well in the Weston house, a place full of sordid secrets, miserable memories and the kind of furniture even the thrift store wouldn’t take. The dining room table is surrounded by mismatched chairs, there’s a scratchy 1970s Eric Clapton album on the 1960s hi-fi, and thick brown shades have been taped over the windows to keep out the sunlight, which allows the Westons’ bad feelings to grow like toxic mushrooms in the dark.

Sprawling, acidic and often poisonously funny, Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” offers some idea of what “Days of Our Lives” might have been like if it had been written by Eugene O’Neill, with a little help from Charles Busch. The dreary Oklahoma home becomes a gathering place for three generations of dissatisfied, distrustful people, and each will face the stony glare and scathing tongue of the Weston’s pill-popping, booze-swilling matriarch, Violet. “I’m just truth-telling!” Violet insists after one of her regularly scheduled outbursts. “Some people get antagonized by the truth."

When the truths about the Westons begin to pile up, many theatergoers may find themselves wishing their seats had seatbelts attached: “August” is a head-spinning, bone-rattling roller coaster ride disguised as a play.

Every jolt and shock comes through with maximum impact in the touring production, which repeats again Wednesday night at Wharton Center. Director Anna D. Shapiro has assembled a magnificent cast led by Estelle Parsons as the mad, maddening Violet; if things got any hotter on the stage, the sprinkler system would probably kick in.

When she’s not tearing family members limb from limb, Violet is battling “mouth cancer” with an impressive assortment of drugs that her husband, Beverly (Jon DeVries), lists off in an arresting opening monologue: Valium, Vicodin, Percocet, Percodan, Dilaudid “and Xanax — for fun,” he says, rolling the name of each medication around on his tongue as if it was a lemon drop.

But while the parade of pills may have cost Violet her equilibrium, they haven’t clouded her vision of the world around her. “Nobody slips anything by me — I know what’s what,” she snaps, and it turns out she really is telling the truth. As the skeletons begin to tumble out of the dusty closets, Violet remains unfazed; she always knew where the bodies (and the secrets) were buried.

“My mouth burns from the chemotherapy,” the woozy Violet complains, although she has no trouble breathing fire whenever she chooses to do so.

Beverly’s abrupt disappearance brings the Weston sisters scurrying back to their childhood home, although you immediately sense there’s no place they’d rather not be. Ivy (Angelica Torn) is a college librarian who’s spent years chasing true love and looks worn-down by the hunt. Karen (Amy Warren) is an outwardly bubbly real estate agent — and recovering Scientologist — whose favorite subject is herself and who shows off her fianc, Steve (Laurence Lau), as if he was a prime piece of property that she’d managed to snag for a bargain price. Meanwhile, Barbara (Shannon Cochran), an academic who casually throws references to Carson McCullers into her conversation, is valiantly trying to pretend she’s not estranged from her husband, Bill (Jeff Still), and her 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Emily Kinney), a movie buff who was named after troubled “Breathless” star Jean Seberg.

Violet’s squawking sister, Mattie Fae (Libby George), is also on hand, along with her somewhat distant husband, Charlie (Paul Vincent O’Connor), and their well-meaning but awkward son, Little Charles (Steve Key). Wandering through the tension-filled rooms like a lost tourist is the lovely, dutiful Johnna (DeLanna Studi), a caregiver/cook/clean-up woman Beverly hired right before he vanished.

Even though the locusts outside are raising a racket, they can’t hope to compete with the rumbles indoors. By the end of the evening, one character is dead and nearly everyone else can be counted among the walking wounded. Letts’ scalding words and caustic confrontations are as electrifying as they are terrifying, which means “August” is one of those plays in which you frequently find yourself laughing out loud and immediately feeling guilty — or at least uncomfortable — about your reaction.

That’s because Letts draws each character so vividly he or she might be a next-door neighbor or someone you ran into at a party. Even Beverly, who appears in only one scene, instantly establishes himself as a distinctive personality in a brief amount of time. The brilliance of Letts’ script lies in how much he communicates about a person’s backstory or his or her relationships with the people around them in the space of only a few words.

Any blank spaces are filled in beautifully by the actors. Cochran and Still create a troubling snapshot of a quickly deteriorating marriage in which the love hasn’t quite completely died, and Kinney is splendid as the would-be worldly daughter who self-medicates and submerges herself in cinema to deal with the anguish around her. “This is a great room,” she notes of Johnna’s bedroom. “Very ‘Night of the Hunter.’”

Torn and Key are equally effective as two of the more subdued souls in the house: Torn’s slumped shoulders carry a lifetime of misgivings and broken dreams, while Key’s crackling voice and barely contained manic energy conveys Little Charles’ low self-esteem and his desperation to make a new life for himself.

Warren, cruising through her scenes with the dizzy, disarming charm reminiscent of the young Teri Garr, manages to be as funny as she is poignant, and Lau radiates slimy self-confidence and creepy charisma as her latest dreamboat.

Although diminutive in size, Parsons builds Violet into a formidable tower of power, wielding her every word like a switchblade and breaking spirits as easily as she smashes plates. Yes, Violet’s steps may be unsteady, but she never seems to have any problem walking all over anyone who gets in her way. 

"August: Osage County" repeats at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Wharton Center. Call (800) WHARTON for tickets.